Compound Scarcity: Life as a Graduate Employee with Children

I was asked if I could write something about life as a graduate employee with children.

I got the email at 11 at night, and my first reaction was “How would I possibly have time to do that?” then I realized that was exactly the point.

I love my jobs – all of them. I love collaborating with faculty and colleagues from here and around the country on research projects. I love the challenge of teaching classes that students are not always excited about coming in. I loved taking classes before I was ABD. And my favorite jobs are with my family: playing with my baby, teaching my older children electronics or critical thinking, cooking dinners, reading bedtime stories.

There is only one problem: compound scarcity. To put it simply, whatever shortages of time, money, and energy are likely to affect the average graduate employee, having a family adds to the challenge.

My fellow grad students post selfies in the computer lab late into the evening working on their dissertation; I’ve been home since 5 helping with cooking and homework and diapers. They fight off sickness as a result of the combined stress of teaching, research and coursework; I have to work my schedule around the potential sickness of any of five family members.

None of this is to complain. As I said, I love all of my jobs. But it is to say that being a graduate worker is more complicated, the more people are depending on you, and advisor, departments and potential future employers often don’t account for those complications.

When my youngest son was born last year with lung issues, he had to spend a couple of weeks at Hershey medical center. We were lucky that his medical costs were fully covered, but that disturbance set me back on progress in writing, complicated my research assistantship and left our house looking like a tornado went through.

I have obligations to my students to teach well. I have obligations to my collaborators to keep papers moving forward. I have obligations to my program to try and finish in a timely manner. And I have obligations to my family. When you have a family, not only do your plans have to be more flexible, but it’s that much harder to recover lost time afterwards and catch up on those obligations. And I know that at the end of this, I have four other people relying on me, and that I can’t just wait for the right job or squeeze the budget to spend another few months working on a dissertation.

When I got that email, I had spent part of the day supervising kids during a snow cancellation, I had spent an hour shopping and I was just settling down to prepare for teaching the next day. I never regret having a family or coming to grad school for a moment. But I often have to wonder how (and if) I will manage to keep juggling all the balls I’ve been handed.

– Graduate Employee, Sociology